Understanding the Security threats of Europe

Harsh V. Pant

Even if Donald Trump does not win the presidency, it is unlikely that enthusiasm for supporting Ukraine would be high in the US’s political ranks.

Assessing Europe’s position:

To say that Europe stands at an inflection point would perhaps be an understatement. Russia is gaining ground in its war with Ukraine and the spectre of Donald Trump’s return haunts the United States of America and its allies. Europe has managed to stand firm so far but its unity is wobbly. After failing to focus on security for decades, European leaders are finding, much to their discomfiture, that the so-called peace dividend was not only an illusion but it also had a debilitating impact on the will of a once formidable continent to stand on its legs.

In one of the biggest successes for Russian forces in months, they have taken full control of the key eastern town of Avdiivka. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has commended this as an “important victory”, while Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, laid the blame for this defeat on faltering Western weapons supplies.

U.S Elections, NATO and European security:

Political division in the US is scuttling the Joe Biden administration’s attempts to continue to provide critical military assistance to Ukraine. After months of political squabbling, the US Senate managed to approve $60 billion for Ukraine but the situation in the House of Representatives remains precarious. The NATO secretary, General Jens Stoltenberg, has criticised the American inability to support Ukraine at this critical juncture.

Meanwhile, Europe has been slow to act. While there has been a lot of rhetoric in support of Ukraine, there’s been limited action on the ground. Europe’s choices remain severely constrained by its lack of real military capability. For all the talk of Europeans managing the security of Europe, there is little to show for it with even the limited goal of NATO members spending 2% of their GDP on defence being met by only 11 of the alliance’s 31 members. It is not surprising that the Europeans are not on target to meet their commitment of delivering one million 155-millimeter artillery shells to Ukraine by March.

The re-entry of Trump as the Republican frontrunner for the American presidential polls has, once again, jolted Europe from its slumber. Trump’s comments at an election rally that he would encourage Russia to “do whatever the hell they want” to a country that does not live up to its promise of spending on its defence budget has caused a lot of heartburn in Europe as it challenges the very foundations of the trans-Atlantic alliance.

Trump’s unpredictability is making Europeans conscious of the fact that they have not been able to get their act together. Even with all NATO members meeting their defence spending target, it would be a decade before Europe can be expected to defend itself on its own without American support.

In eastern Europe and the Baltic, there is a strong push towards shoring up defence capabilities as the Russian threat looms much larger. But in the European heartland, countries with a traditionally effective defence-industrial base are yet to seriously expand their capabilities in accordance with the continent’s changing requirements. Trump may have amplified concerns about Europe not picking up the slack when it comes to defence and security, but this has been part of Washington’s growing dissonance with Europe since the days of George W. Bush.

What lies ahead?

If Russia is on the offensive again on the frontlines with Ukraine, it is because it has recognised the dissonance within NATO as well as Europe’s vulnerabilities. Trump’s views on Ukraine have support among Republicans. Even if Trump does not win the presidency, it is unlikely that enthusiasm for supporting Ukraine would be high in the US’s political ranks. So the burden is now on Europe. It has to reform its defence industry and rebuild it quickly. If it can accomplish that using the challenge of Ukraine as an incentive, then it can build a new security architecture in the continent on its own terms.

Harsh V Pant is a Professor of International Relations at King’s College London and vice-president for studies at Observer Research Foundation (ORF).

The article was first published in The Telegraph on February 20, 2024 as Europe’s security challenge

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.

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Acknowledgement: This article was posted by Sameeran Galagali, a Research Intern at IMPRI.